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Increase of Childhood Obesity Slowing in Calif., Study Suggests

Between 2003 and 2008, California students were still gradually growing more obese, but the rate of increase had slowed from years prior, according to a new study based out of the University of California, Davis.

The study, published in the February issue of the American Heart Journal, examines state fitness-test results of 6.3 million students in 5th, 7th, and 9th grades.

In the six-year time frame, obesity among the youths being examined rose 2 percent total, according to the study. The study's authors say that previous national studies estimate the annual rate of increase for childhood obesity to be between 0.8 percent and 1.7 percent; California's rate of increase in those six years was only 0.33 percent.

Overall fitness also increased, according to their findings. Of the six fitness areas measured by the test—aerobic capacity, body composition, abdominal strength, trunk extensor strength, upper-body strength, and flexibility—results largely varied, but the percentage of students with healthy aerobic capacity significantly increased.

"This was particularly heartening, because cardiovascular and respiratory endurance directly correlate with reduced risks of heart disease and diabetes later in life, especially if it is maintained over time," said William Bommer, professor of cardiovascular medicine at UC Davis and senior author of the study, in a statement.

There was one major area of concern for Bommer and his colleagues, however. The number of children entering 5th grade already obese increased each year, and school interventions often had little effect.

"Children who were obese entering the 5th grade remained obese in subsequent years as well, despite improvements in school nutrition and fitness standards," Bommer said.
To counteract the problem, Bommer suggested schools subjecting students to fitness tests in earlier grades (even preschool), to better identify children who could have weight troubles.

While Bommer and his colleagues were optimistic about the rate of obesity slowing in California, the state isn't out of the weeds just yet. Results from the latest state fitness test show that only 31 percent of students passed all six components of the test.

Furthermore, nearly 40 percent of the state's public middle and high school students—roughly 1.3 million in total—don't participate in any school-based physical education, according to a policy brief released last summer by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

Bommer said, "Our study proves that nutrition and physical-activity standards can help fewer children become obese during a critical time in their lives for establishing long-term healthy habits."

Assuming that's true, it's now likely just a matter of expanding those same nutrition and physical-activity standards across California and the rest of the United States.

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